By Sarah Street
Following Richard Farmer’s recent post on how the Royal Mint established a subsidiary in Pinewood during the Second World War, the story of the first film to be produced once the studio was de-requisitioned sheds light on the ingenious and resourceful ways in which production teams rose to the challenge of making films when materials required for building sets such as hessian, plaster, timber, paper, rubber and canvas were in short supply, and post-war recovery was only just beginning. As the Kinematograph Weekly put it: ‘Pinewood is the mirror of the production industry: in it we can see many of the problems that are going to face our other major studios when they resume production’ (14 March 1946: 12). Pinewood re-opened its doors to companies in the Independent Group: Cineguild, the Archers and Individual Pictures. Individual was a newly formed production company of prolific British filmmakers Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and Green for Danger (1946), an adaptation of a detective novel by Christianna Brand, was the first film they made at Pinewood after the war.
The fiction revolves around a detective’s often rather blundering investigations into some unexplained murders which have taken place in the hospital. Whodunnit? Could be the surgeon, one of the nurses or the anaesthetist. One thing’s for sure, the action takes place within the confines of the hospital, and for this an elaborate set was required. Apart from two brief shots at the beginning, the film was made entirely in the studios spread over two of the sound stages. The work of production designer Peter Proud was remarkable for achieving some amazing results: the creation of a composite hospital set which in the story has been established within the interior of an Elizabethan house requisitioned for an emergency wartime hospital. This plot concentrated action within the hospital’s spaces including a main corridor, several wards, Sister’s office, a large operating theatre, a scrubbing-up room, sterilizing room, hospital laundry, a social hall and adjoining nurses’ rest room, an office, reception desk and porter’s lodge.
Proud made detailed sketches of the sets in advance of filming, collaborating closely with director Sidney Gilliat to work out the most effective shot constructions. Proud devised several ingenious methods which made filming on this set as smooth and mobile as possible, including making ceilings on runners which could be moved quickly to assist the camera crew. Most of the wall sections were mounted on rollers so that entire sections could be swung in and out of position very quickly.
To save time the operating theatre set was built twice, each one providing a different viewpoint that the unit could easily capture by moving effortlessly between the two. Proud also used materials in highly resourceful ways such as covering a ceiling by sandfly netting to create a strong, solid ceiling effect but which was transparent enough for the studio lights to penetrate. He used paint rather than plaster on floors to create the impression of concrete and a brick wall effect was made using painted details on glass. Another clever trick was created by special effects expert plasterer Bill Baines who made a bas-relief in plasticine on a glass panel to create the effect of a tower. A report on the film’s production gave the detail: ‘The lower outline was painted to match the lower half of the tower set. Foliage and a cloud effect were painted on a plaster cyclorama, standing behind the bas-relief. The camera crew panned down on a model head’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 2 May 1946: 40). The large number of specialist props including hospital equipment were loaned from the Ministry of Supply. The incongruity of a camera crew in an operating theatre provided some wonderful photo opportunities for reporters, as in this case when the crew took a tea break during filming.
The cinematographer on Green for Danger was Ossie Morris, who recalled difficulties working on the film because Pinewood had started to use American-designed Mitchell cameras which had a different viewing system from the Debrie cameras he was more used to working with. Rather than being able to see exactly what the camera would capture through the viewfinder, the Mitchell camera had its viewer on the left-hand side, away from the axis of the lens and the film gate. This caused parallax problems and particular difficulties in shots which included the five murder suspects even though Morris could only see three in the viewfinder. As he put it: ‘Getting compositions in the viewfinder you have to adopt a whole different approach…You have to make your brain realise you’ve got five people in there’ (Morris 1987). A particularly testing 360 degrees shot came early on in the film when the camera pans across the five possible suspects in the operating theatre, as you’ll see in this extract in which Police Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) recalls the investigation.
Even though most of Green for Danger was shot inside Pinewood, an exterior flashback sequence to a London air raid required a perfectly clear sky. Gilliat was equipped with meteorological reports by International Meteorological Consultants, a new service recently hired by Rank which provided production units with supposedly more accurate local weather reports than had previously been possible from the Air Ministry. But although the service aimed to save producers time and money, Gilliat wasn’t impressed with its rather inflated claims to super-accuracy (Macnab 1993: 104). On this occasion night shooting was however successful, but the sound crew encountered a problem when some nightingales they’d disturbed started singing into the mike. The Kinematograph Weekly reported: ‘The unwelcome guests were quickly dispersed by a flood of light from an inverted arc’ (20 June 1946: 43). IMCOS’s American director Ken Willard and employment of American personnel were criticized by the Association of Cine Technicians which at the time was pressing for any hiring of non-British studio personnel to be a reciprocal arrangement. IMCOS was connected at that time to Rank’s internationalist policies and post-war export drive even though in the end producers preferred to rely on local weather reports when scheduling exterior location shooting.
The film was greeted favourably by critics; it did good business at the British box-office and despite distribution problems comparatively well in the USA. For Launder and Gilliat it represented another well-crafted, mid-range budgeted film whose reputation has increased over time (Brown 1977: 120). The film nearly didn’t get made because the British Board of Film Censors got the wrong end of the stick, thinking the proposal would be a literal adaptation of the novel which was set in a military hospital, rather than the civilian facility which featured in the film. Gilliat recalled their reasoning (spoiler alert!) was ‘that any soldiers would be so overcome by the fear of being murdered by one of the nurses that it could seriously affect their chance of recovery!’ (Brown 1977: 120). As soon as they were put right, the production was given the go-ahead, so bravo for Launder and Gilliat. And here they are sitting proudly with the Green for Danger set in the background.
Brown, Geoff, Launder and Gilliat, BFI, 1977.
Kinematograph Weekly, 14 March 1946: 12; 2 May 1946: 40; 20 June 1946: 43.
Morris, Oswald, BECTU interview no. 9, 21 July 1987.
Picturegoer, 25 May 1946: 9.